Social Security: Suicide Prevention Tool - Pacific Standard

Social Security: Suicide Prevention Tool

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New research finds the percentage of Americans who take their own lives drops significantly at age 62 — the year one can start receiving benefits.

By Tom Jacobs

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Blank Social Security checks are run through a printer at the U.S. Treasury printing facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

When officials of the Trump administration and the Republican-majority Congress speak of “reforming” entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, the conversation is largely confined to cost-cutting. It’s easy to forget the enormous impact these programs have on Americans’ lives.

A striking reminder comes in a new study, which finds “a significant, sudden drop in suicide rates upon turning 62 years old” — the age at which one becomes eligible for Social Security benefits.

“This decline is large, particularly among males, (and) has emerged for females and widened for males in recent years,” writes economist Jeffrey DeSimone of the University of Alabama–Birmingham.

“Much evidence suggests this discontinuity is attributable to the Social Security early retirement age, more so than the act of retiring itself,” he adds in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy.

DeSimone’s research covered the years 1990 through 2014. He reports that the suicide rate — unlike the homicide rate — “shows a distinct age trend, with a discrete break at age 62, representing a nearly 8 percent decline from the age 61 rate.”

“This drop in suicides is concentrated among men,” he notes, adding that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show it “has increased considerably starting in the mid-2000s.”

DeSimone lays out a series of reasons why this drop is almost surely related to the onset of government benefits, as opposed to a new contentedness that comes with retirement. He points to a 2015 study that found “almost 50 percent of 62-year-olds begin Social Security receipt, compared to 12 percent who retire full-time.”

“It is also possible that Social Security eligibility could lower suicide by reducing income uncertainty,” he adds. Even those who do not start drawing benefits at 62 “can henceforth choose to start receiving benefits at any time,” which presumably provides mental and emotional comfort.

He isn’t certain why this drop is so much greater among men, but he notes that suicide rates are substantially higher for men than women. It’s also possible that Social Security income “simply matters more to men than women,” in part because men’s benefits levels tend to be larger than those of women, “both because of higher wages and more years of work.”

Such nuances aside, “Benefit levels are still apparently sufficient to significantly raise the well-being of recipients,” he writes, “even in the reduced amounts available when claimed early.”

“These results heighten the already substantial concern regarding the future solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund,” DeSimone concludes. They also “serve as an argument against proposals to raise either the normal retirement age beyond 67 … or the early retirement age beyond 62.”

Indeed, it seems that government check isn’t just a welcome bit of supplemental income. For many seniors, it is literally a lifeline.

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